Politicians, beauty queens, and rock stars all claim they want world peace. But could the unassuming archivist, more likely to be found buried in a stack of yellowing newspapers than at a global summit, be the true peacemaker of our time?
That was the prevailing theme at the Scone Foundation's "Archivist of the Year" awards, held last week at the CUNY Graduate Center: archivists aren't here merely to perform the dutiful-but-dull task of preservation, but to defend civil liberties, encourage transparency, and maybe--just maybe--facilitate historical reconciliation between former enemies. Underscoring the idea of archivist-as-peacemaker, this year's award was shared by representatives of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Khader Salameh of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library in Jerusalem, and Yehoshua Freundlich of the Israel State Archives.
David Myers, the director of U.C.L.A.'s Center for Jewish Studies, spoke gracefully on the evening's subject, saying that "the potential of the archive is not merely to preserve, but to liberate." His belief is that through the dedicated work of archivists, it may be possible for Israelis and Palestinians to "craft a shared history that honors, with self-critical honesty, both traditions." As possible inspiration, he cited "Histoire-Geschichte," a history textbook about post-war Europe co-authored by French and German experts.
Columbia's Rashid Khalidi, though a shade or two more skeptical than Myers, was nevertheless insistent that preserving the records of the Palestinian people was a critical step in the peace process, particularly in the ongoing absence of a Palestinian state or even a centralized archive. Vital as it may be, preservation often takes a back seat to more dire needs, said Khalidi. "There always seem to be more pressing needs elsewhere."
Previous "Archivist of the Year" honoree Saad Eskander proves just how dangerous --and how urgent--the work of an archivist can be. The former Kurdish fighter returned to his native Iraq in 2003 to work as director of the Iraqi National Library in Baghdad. In a captivating online diary, Eskander chronicled his brave efforts at reclaiming his nation's history from a variety of threats: mold, car bombs, Baath loyalists, Muslim fundamentalists. The blog provided a window into the bipolar demands of his job, from mundane administrative questions, like where to install new air conditioners, to the virtually unthinkable--snipers, death threats, and even the kidnapping and murder of two staff librarians.
In less dramatic fashion, another previous honoree, John Taylor, of the U.S. National Archives, was once hailed by Maureen Dowd as one of Washington's true "macho heroes" after standing up to Dick Cheney. The vice-president and his famously aggressive legal team insisted that Cheney was not a member of the executive branch, and therefore did not need to provide access to his records to archivists. In turn, the archivists filed a complaint with the Department of Justice. As Dowd wrote, "When [Cheney] tried to push around the little guys, the National Archive data collectors--I'm visualizing dedicated 'We the People' wonky types with glasses and pocket protectors-- they pushed back."
Let's hear it for the wonks.